Monday, June 13, 2011

An Ode to Theatre

As far back as I can remember, I have enjoyed being in theatrical productions. They have ranged from Sunday school dramas* to high school productions to community theatre. I have had lead roles and roles of one just one line. I have worked backstage, and even co-directed. And I have thoroughly enjoyed almost every minute of it. By my count I have been a part of over thirty different productions.

The other day I started wondering why it is that I enjoy doing theatre so much, and the first thing that came to mind is that I enjoy watching and being part of the process of a show coming together. It starts with auditions. There is always a feeling of both excitement and dread on the day of auditions: excitement because I may finally be able to play the role I always wanted, dread because I may end up getting saddled with a boring role that doesn't give me anything to work with. I eagerly watch the others as they audition, casting the show in my head and trying to figure out who the director will cast in each role (and in the process try to figure out which role I will get).

Once the show has been cast, there are the first few awkward rehearsals. We don't know what we're doing, we're doing it with a bunch of strangers, and we're doing it on a bare stage (or maybe not even on a stage at all). But as rehearsals progress, lines are memorized, the set starts showing up piece by piece, and the cast gets comfortable with each other and starts working together as a unit. Even when I'm not on stage, I like watching the director work with the other actors to create a scene and am genuinely happy for them when it comes together. The first time we run through the entire show without stopping is always a momentous occasion. Sure everyone screws up at least once, and the whole thing is very rough and way too long, but we just proved to ourselves that we can do it. When the costumes show up, you find yourself actually standing next to Belle, instead of an actress saying all of Belle's lines.

When the tech crew arrives for the last week of rehearsals, it feels like the family is finally complete. Now we have someone to give us light or darkness as needed, and someone to operate our mics and any music. We may have people working backstage, manipulating props and set pieces so the actors don't have to.

Opening night is the culmination of all our efforts.** We now have an audience to laugh, cry, and applaud. By this time, all the jokes have become stale to us, so it is refreshing and invigorating to learn that we are still being funny and that the audience likes it. And there's nothing like listening to an audience sniffle as they try to hold back their tears, or gasp at a shocking or scary moment.

Some philosopher (and probably more than one) said something to the effect that life is not about the destination but the journey. This is definitely true for me when it comes to theatre. For me, the rehearsal period is the Thanksgiving dinner while the performances are the piece of pumpkin pie for dessert. Sure it's nice, but what I'm really there for is the turkey, rolls, and mashed potatoes. It's fun to watch a ragtag bunch of misfits become a well-oiled machine.

But even more than watching the whole thing come together, the thing I think I like the best about doing theatre is that it gives me the opportunity to be an indispensable part of a whole greater than myself. A production of Romeo and Juliet needs both a Romeo and a Juliet, and those are the roles that most people want. And yet, though he has only four lines, the Apothecary is just as integral a piece to the play as Romeo or Juliet. And the beautiful thing is that the guy playing Romeo cannot play the Apothecary. Nor can Juliet. Nor can anyone else in the play.

And what's even more awesome is that the actors can't do it without the tech crew. Even those so-called one man shows have a team of technical people behind them. And having been both an actor and a techie, I know that while the actors may look down on the techies, thinking they are only techies because they are not good enough to be actors, the techies know that the actors are not smart enough to be techies.

I once had the opportunity to be part of a production of The Foreigner. I was part of the crew. My entire job was to stand backstage during the climax to do some special effects. I was busy for only about five minutes of the entire run of the two hour show. But all the actors were on stage at the time, so none of them could do it. And the other people in the crew weren't in a position to be able to get backstage to do it. So even though I was needed for only five minutes of the show, I was still a vital part of the production. And I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

*Ever since I heard it, I have hated the word "skit." It sounds willfully unprofessional - something merely to kill time or appease the kids and not something that aspires to be a work of art. If I had my way it would be removed from the English language entirely. It also doesn't help that it is one letter away from being a profanity.

**Two opening nights in particular stand out in my memory. The first was a production of Rivers and Ravines my freshmen year in high school. It was a cast of all freshmen. Our rehearsals were rough, and we had never made it through the entire show without stopping. And to top it all off, we had to replace one of our actors in one of the major roles at the last minute. Standing backstage with the other actors, I finally understood phrases like "The tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife." I could literally feel the tension pressing down on me so much that I had to get away from everyone for fear of it affecting me. Then the show started, and we rocked! The second was a production of Calamity Jane my senior year in high school. This time I was the last-minute replacement for a major role (though I did have a week to learn it, unlike the guy in Rivers and Ravines who only had about a day). The euphoria I felt when the lights went down after the final scene and the applause started was unlike any I have felt before or since. For the usual feeling of "We did it!" was combined with my own personal "I did it!"


vespreardens said...

Ah, the stage....

In high school, we had no official crew. We had the theatre people. That was it. Everyone pitched in at *least* one day of hardcore set design, and I don't regret it for a minute. You learn a lot about process seeing it from different angles that way. You gain a respect for another side of the craft.

Same with directing. Directing and stage managing can be some of the *hardest* things to do in theatre. It's one person's will guiding and sometimes forcing the wills of everyone else on set. It's figuring out what you have to work with and making it work. Sometimes, it fails miserably, but when it comes together, it's... priceless.

Oh, how I miss being part of bringing that all together! There is nothing like storytelling, and telling it on stage or on film... where it's a bunch of people united in an effort to pass along their message, and messages... there's nothing like it. There's no job to small to be unimportant. There are so many fine details, and even on opening night when the curtains rise, there are all these other things that just get put aside that could have been and never will be. But once you step out from the wings of the stage, you don't worry about that anymore. Now it's just you, the other players, and the audience, and every bit of who you are and what you worry about or dream about gets pushed aside to bring the story to life. Now, it is only about making this moment live in the eyes of a stranger, for however long this moment lasts....

James said...

Well said Matt! Well said Liz! I'm a drama teacher now, and it's been interesting to experience high school theater from the other side of things. What amazes me about theater is how often everything comes together through sheer last minute panic; especially when working with teens and young adults. I also love that moment you described, Matt, when the rag-tag misfits become a team. That didn't happen until the week of the play this year, but it was great to watch the kids hit that point and finally "get it."

Jessica said...

Love this, Matt! I feel like I understand theatre better now . . . and, I don't know if you did this on purpose, but are you aware of how much this sounds like St. Paul's church-as-the-body-of-Christ analogy? Especially bits like this: "But all the actors were on stage at the time, so none of them could do it. And the other people in the crew weren't in a position to be able to get backstage to do it. So even though I was needed for only five minutes of the show, I was still a vital part of the production." The eye needs the foot . . .

Reminds me so much of that passage.

Herch said...

Vespreardens - Thank you for your thoughts. I think it does work best when the cast is also the backstage crew, and for most of the shows I've done various members of the cast were responsible for moving set pieces and taking care of their own props. The few times I directed it was the hardest and most thankless job I've ever done. (Note: that is an observation, not a complaint.) More often than not, I prefer being the one being told what to do instead of the one telling people what to do. I went for about five years without doing any theatre, so when they announced at my church that they were going to be doing Seussical, I jumped at the chance to be a part of it. Even though I was just running the spotlight and just showed up for the final week of rehearsals, I reveled in the opportunity to do theatre again and was surprised at how much I had missed it.

James - I think it's really cool that you're directing. I've done enough theatre by now that the last minute panic never really affects me because I trust that it will eventually work out. It's amazing how people can step up to the challenge when it is finally for real. (And thanks for the plug on your blog.)

Jessica - It wasn't intentional, but I do think it's a very apt parallel. I'm especially reminded of the part about not envying the gifts that others have. Last year I had the opportunity to play Belle's father in Beauty and the Beast. I could have spent the entire show wishing that I had instead been cast as Gaston because the role is so juicy, or Lumiere because he's so charming and gets to sing "Be Our Guest," or Cogsworth because he has such a wonderful dry humor to him. Instead, I chose to revel in the role I was given and played the role to the best of my ability and ended up having more fun than anyone should legally be allowed to have.

Monica Romig Green said...

Dear Matt, as a fellow theatre person, I so appreciate it when someone else voice what I love so much about the theatre. Have you ever tried producing? Talk about watching all the pieces coming together and knowing that every single person is indispensable! Auditions are halfway through the process! It's truly incredible to be a part of it all.

My favorite quote about the theatre comes from Tom Stoppard and I had it on the wall of my office at the Mark Taper Forum:
'Allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.'
'So what do we do?'
'Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.'
'I don't know. It's a mystery.'
May we all keep enjoying the mystery!

Herch said...

Monica - The thought of producing terrifies me. While the big picture perspective would be fascinating to see, I don't know if I could handle all that responsibility over so many different areas. What I like is having a small piece of the puzzle all to myself.

And that quote is amazing and absolutely true. There was only one show I was part of that never felt like it fully came together (and even so, we didn't flub our lines or completely miss cues).

I've done several shows where there were last minute replacements in the cast, and the replacements all succeeded admirably. (And all but one time I thought the replacement actually did better than the original person.)

And then there was the time that not enough of the right people auditioned for a show, so the director chose a different show to do that matched the cast he did have.